Portrait TRACK: Lesson 4


Create a portrait that expresses an emotional mood by using an unrealistic color scheme.

For some people it can be helpful to have a specific word to refer to the mood: sullen, perky, whimsical, livid, energetic, etc.

Look up the word in the dictionary to get ideas for how you might represent your portrait.

Emile Nolde
Emil Nolde

Thumbnail Sketches

There are many ways you can approach using a color scheme that isn’t represented in real life. Be open and willing to play around with various options at the thumbnail sketch stage.

We recommend doing at least a few thumbnail sketches in color so you can preview what the color scheme will be like.

Approaches to Color

You can choose to work spontaneously, so that your color decisions are made in the moment, as a reaction to your process.

If you enjoy working from observation, you can simulate an unusual color scheme by getting a colored light bulb to for example, cast a red light on your face.

Lucas Samaras is a photographer who is known for using colored lights in his portraits.


Jen K., Ashley Tanelle, Johanna

Hear from an Art Prof Student

I always said to myself, ‘I like drawing people but I’m terrible at drawing people.’

I feel like just getting a bunch of those drawings out of the way, I feel much more comfortable going into a portrait and knowing where to start.

I learned colors can change just from different planes of the face and that you’ve go to incorporate both cool and warm colors.

Jen Noelle


Emile Nolde, Jenny Saville, Marc Chagall, Lucas Samaras


  • Many colors are associated with specific emotions. For example, red is often associated with anger, and blue is often perceived as being melancholy.
  • Consider that colors often have different meanings depending on the culture and time period. For example, in Chinese culture, red often symbolizes good fortune and luck.

Reference Photos

How To Create Color Palettes

Planning a color scheme for an artwork is an effective way to achieve visual cohesion and intent in your artwork. Color schemes are an effective way of establishing a mood in a painting, as well as creating visual contrast and textures. There are ma

ny ways to collect ideas for color schemes and apply them to your creative process. Art Prof Clara Lieu and Teaching Artist Lauryn Welch lead this discussion.

Portrait Background Ideas

This video provides ideas for how to create backgrounds for portraits so that your compositions are visually dynamic and engaging. 

Backgrounds are often neglected, especially in portraits where the focus is usually on the face. However, backgrounds can have a great impact on the way a portrait comes across, especially in terms of conveying a specific narrative.

Discussion led by Art Prof Clara Lieu and Teaching Artists Cat Huang and Alex Rowe.

Share Your Progress

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